I guess it counts as a fast-food experience of another kind. There we were — Sridhar and
I guess it counts as a fast-food experience of another kind. There we were — Sridhar andI — with an agenda to eat as much as possible in the day and a bit we had to ourselves. We’d flown into Dharamsala on a lovely, sunny day, and by the time we got to the Tibetan settlement of McLeodganj, it was late in the afternoon. Perhaps a trifle too late for lunch, but well in time for tea.
So we headed right away to Pema Thang Guesthouse (01892-221871, pemathang.net) near Hotel Bhagsu. Raj, Pema Thang’s General Manager, was dressed in three layers, topped by a parka, all of which looked ridiculously incongruous in the late sun that shone on the pretty balcony restaurant. When I asked him if he was feeling cold, he shook his head and said that it had been bitterly cold and wet the past few days, so he wasn’t taking any chances even though it was a sunny day. The guesthouse has been a McLeodganj fixture for a long time, and the restaurant’s simple vegetarian menu was legendary, especially the cakes. We ordered two honey-lemon-gingers, a couple of black coffees, a plate of cheese sandwiches, fries and a banana cake, an apple crumble and a chocolate cake. Visitors to McLeodganj know that the drink of choice in this mountain town is the honey-lemon-ginger. This invigorating concoction of hot water and, yes, honey, lemon juice and shredded ginger is the perfect grease for your soul. Pema Thang was quite deserted while we wolfed all this down.
Quite full, we decided to walk it off a bit. We wandered around Jogiwara and Temple Road, the two streets that essentially make up McLeodganj’s market area, and then headed up to this new café that everyone has been raving about. Common Ground Café (09816155523, commongroundcafe.in) has only been around since 2009, but it’s gained a reputation as a great place to hang out or watch movies surrounded by Tibetan culture and politics and friendly people eager to chat. I asked Tamu, the girl at the counter, what we should order by way of dessert. She smiled and recommended the Old Monk rum ball. Now, I’m a huge fan of the rum ball, and I know it’s rare to get one with actually any rum in it. This one was different. I bit into it, and chocolate and rum exploded in my mouth; I gratefully gulped down some of the vanilla ice cream that came with it. A herbal tea brew called the Raab Ga Yangzin, made up of redcurrant, saffron, and wild roses helped clear the alcoholic haze somewhat. I was greedy for something more, and Sridhar too was interested, so we got ourselves an almond toffee bar.
We’d been in McLeodganj barely a couple of hours, and we were already bursting. I figured a walk up to Bhagsu — McLeodganj’s satellite village — and back might remedy that. The road to Bhagsu runs from the main square for a couple of kilometres and is a nice walk, but not on a weekend like this with tourists from the plains thronging the town. There was one place I wanted to visit for nostalgia’s sake. The first time I’d come to McLeodganj, in 2008, I had been taken to the Triund View Café, a humble shack by the road that made excellent omelettes and sweet milky chai. The place has changed hands a few times since, but even today the fare is just as good. The view, of course, is striking, with the triangle of Mon peeking out over the snow-covered ridge of Triund.
It was evening when we got back into town. Time for an early dinner, perhaps, but since time was of the essence, we wanted to pack in two dinners. The first one was at the popular Carpe Diem (09882192294) on Jogiwara Road, which is a great place to hang out—the second floor offers stunning views of Triund and the Dhauladhar — and savour some excellent food. But first some palate-cleansing honey-lemon-ginger. Next up: a chicken sizzler, a tuna salad and something called a Hunter Style Chicken. For all its strange moniker, it’s basically a chicken breast cooked in a sauce of wine and tomatoes, with olives and mushrooms for garnishing and it came with a generous portion of spaghetti. Sridhar took photographs of the food and was so overwhelmed that he thereafter ignored the table for a while. I’ve had both the chicken sizzler and the tuna salad many times, and they’re favourites. The former was still spitting and hissing when I had my first succulent bite, while the latter was light as the breeze, the tuna amazingly flavourful. The Hunter Style Chicken was a wonderful assault on the senses: a riot of meat and wine and olives.
We couldn’t finish the food, obviously, so we packed stuff for later, filled our bags and crossed the road and went to Norling (09418105108). Jogiwara Road is well-stocked with Tibetan restaurants, some large like the Tibet Kitchen, and some others a mere hole in the narrow wall, a doorway covered with a flag curtain, and in dark little rooms, some amazing momos and thukpa. These are mostly frequented by Tibetans, though the more upmarket ones draw a fair share of foreign tourists. The chief among these, occupying the corner space on Jogiwara opposite the Tibetan Refugee Handicrafts office, is Norling. The mutton momos are perfect, from the minced meat to the consistency of the shells, not to mention the incredibly spicy chilli sauce that comes with it. The thukpa is a meal in itself, bountiful in chunks of meat, vegetables and general good warmth; add a little of the chilli sauce to it, and you can have your sinuses cleaned for free.
We took a taxi down from the darkening McLeodganj into the valley, which looked like a constellation of stars, past Dharamsala to the village of Dari, six kilometres from town. The Ballu homestay (from Rs 900 doubles, 09736304312, facebook.com/theballuhomestay), where we were staying, is a delightfully rustic retreat by the Manjhi Khad nala. KP and Seena, the Malayali couple who run it, are skilled cooks themselves, and serve up crisp dosas, among other things, on request. But food was far from our minds when we turned in.
A lightning storm broke at dawn, sending loud claps of thunder ringing out into the valley, followed by rain. But things calmed down around 11, when we set out, with Seena in tow. When we hit the first slopes of Dharamsala, we saw Tibetans standing alongside the road, with small flowers in their hands. The Dalai Lama was returning to McLeodganj, ahead of his annual lecture a few days later in March, his cavalcade right behind us.
We soon drove past the McLeodganj square and continued up the cool pine forest that stretches up to Dharamkot. The wind was blowing cold and fierce here, and the sky was overcast. We hurried past the empty restaurants and shuttered guesthouses and across mustard fields to the Family Pizzeria to warm ourselves beside its wood-fired oven.
Hans, the Gaddi proprietor of the pizzeria, was his usual self: a smiling, rugged face beneath a black alice band holding back his long hair. His pizzas are legendary: a couple of years ago, I met a girl from Sicily who exclaimed after biting into a sumptuous three-cheese pizza, “Ah this is how mama makes them at home.” I ordered a three-cheese and a tuna pizza, while Seena and Hans, who had been neighbours for two years, chatted about common friends and the weather. Dharamkot wore a look of silence and emptiness. It was still off-season and tourists would start arriving only a month later. The children of the family were alternately playing hide-and-seek and helping Hans in the kitchen. We sat in the innermost hearth of the house where the large oven was being worked by Hans’s mother. Hans, meanwhile, prepared the dough and laid it out, dabbing generous helpings of cheese and toppings on it. The pizza was then passed on into the oven, from where it emerged fluffed up and, as it turned out, delicious.
I waited with barely controlled impatience as Sridhar took his photos. And then, for the next 20 minutes or so, there was only the sound of chewing, scattered ‘ah’s and ‘ooh’s and a riot of bird calls. The tuna pizza was maddeningly good, the crust soft yet crunchy, with almost obscenely-succulent olives, and the cheese! In minutes, both those humungous pizzas had been wolfed down with generous gulps of apple cider. We rounded it all off with dessert: a delicious-as-sin banoffee pie and a chocolate fudge.
After saying our goodbyes to Hans’s lovely family, we staggered on down to the other gastronomic star of Dharamkot: Friendly Planet. A joint-venture between an Israeli and a Gaddi, Friendly Planet opened about ten years ago. Today, it’s a rocking success—and in the most part because of its food. It is a big place: a large one-storied house, with a kitchen, a TV room for films and football, and a large, canopied sit-out area for lounging and dining. The backpacking crowd and the Israelis hadn’t arrived yet, so the place was empty except for Pappi, the Gaddi co-owner, and his friends who work at the café. We placed our order of a lamb burger and fries, hummus with pita and ziva and I quizzed Pappi about Friendly Planet’s great success. He grinned and said he had no clue. But after a pause, he suggested that maybe it’s because they did simple things well. That sounded just right: they did create the right ambience to hang out. On a cloudy, windy day, with intermittent sunshine, I didn’t even mind Coldplay whining ‘In My Place’, Steven Tyler hamming through ‘I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing’ or Travis encouraging everyone to ‘Sing’. The music’s alright, and the food is very good. First up was the hummus with pita bread. You can get this on any backpacking trail, but Friendly Planet has one of the best versions of it: light and rich in flavour. Sridhar had been photographing the chef in the kitchen making the lamb burger, but when it got to the table, all he could do was gape: this was a meal in itself. And, yet, we weren’t quite done. There was still the ziva, a delicious crispy butter pastry with mozzarella cheese, and a lovely dip. I was glad that Seena was around to help us eat all this food!
The rain had lifted a bit, so I gave Pappi a hug and Seena, Sridhar and I decided to walk down to Bhagsu. For one thing, it’s a nice little walk along the mountainside, and we were hoping it would help us digest all the food. This trail has a couple of nice cafés with some great views of the valley like The Buddha Delight Café and Rainbow Gathering, but these were getting renovated — bamboos being replaced, a new coat of paint being added—for the season. It was the same in Bhagsu as well, as we found out. Iconic shops like Dudu’s Falafel — truly world-class — were all shut. Dudu, we heard, wasn’t back from Goa yet, and his café was in the process of getting refurbished. Singh Corner, though, was open. The genial Sardar who runs it is credited with one of the most distinctive gastronomic innovations in town: the Bhagsu cake. It comes packed in large trays, which you can cut into small pieces. The base is made up of crushed and packed biscuits (with plenty of texture) on which sits a thick-yet-firm layer of chocolate. Many cafés in Bhagsu now make it, but the original is just divine.
Seena returned to Dharamkot to meet a friend of hers, and Sridhar had to board a bus to Delhi in a couple of hours. So we called on my friend Manu, who runs Manu Adventures, a little trekking operation, and invited him for a cup of tea at the German Bakery on the way to the Bhagsunag temple. Like German Bakeries everywhere, this one is a bit of an institution. The ease of access means that you’ll find as many weekend tourists from Delhi or Chandigarh as backpackers, and the joint had both kinds of patrons when we went there. Over a delicious chocolate pancake and cups of tea, we discussed Gaddi transhumance patterns and trekking tales until it was time to get Sridhar to the bus station.
The next day was Tibetan National Uprising Day, which meant that McLeodganj would be shut all morning. So I spent the day lazing at the Ballu, playing with the dogs and chatting with Kathleen, an American traveller who had just finished a course on Buddhism at the Tushita Meditation Centre in McLeodganj. She wanted to check out some bookshops, and I wanted to do a final round of restaurants, so we caught a local bus from Dari and headed up to Dharamsala, and then a share jeep to McLeodganj.
Stalwarts of Jogiwara Road like the Malabar Restaurant, Shambala and Shangri-La, each one with a deservedly high reputation for good food, were still shut, so we made our way to the Green Hotel and Restaurant (01892-221200), a new establishment on Bhagsu Road. A large place, the restaurant was packed to the rafters when we got there, but thankfully there weren’t too many people in the open-air area on a balcony with a view of Triund. Kathleen was a fan of the chocolate walnut cake here so we ordered one, along with a banana cake and some coffee. The former was an absolute delight, possibly the best cake I’ve had in McLeodganj, and that’s saying something. A great place for authentic Italian cuisine is Nick’s Italian Kitchen. Also on the Bhagsu Road, this old favourite is in the Kunga Guesthouse (01892-221180) and serves some great gnocchi, cannelloni and ravioli. The eggplant, spinach and cheese lasagna is amazing.
The town’s excellent bookshops were shut, much to Kathleen’s and my dismay, so we went back to Carpe Diem for something that I’d forgotten to eat — Hello to the Queen. A slab of ice cream in a bowl of crumbly cookies, honey and hot bananas, this is as famous in McLeodganj as Bhagsu Cake is in Bhagsu. You’ll find many restaurants making it, but Carpe Diem’s is the best. But it wouldn’t be a normal food day in McLeodganj if we didn’t pack something for later. So Kathleen and I crossed the street from Carpe Diem to the roadside Tibet Quality Bakery and got some pastries for breakfast.
Dusk was falling when we were done, and the day had cleared up again. Nothing else remained to be done other than buying a bottle opener and a corkscrew and making our way back to Dari. An old French pal of Seena and KP’s had just arrived with his parents — and many bottles of excellent red wine. It was quite a lovely way to wind down a frenetic epicurean roundabout of McLo…